As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the Twelve aside by themselves on the road. He told them, “Look, we are going up to Jerusalem. The Human One will be handed over to the chief priests and legal experts. They will condemn him to death. They will hand him over to the Gentiles to be ridiculed, tortured, and crucified. But he will be raised on the third day.” Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus along with her sons. Bowing before him, she asked a favor of him. “What do you want?” he asked. She responded, “Say that these two sons of mine will sit, one on your right hand and one on your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink from the cup that I’m about to drink from?” They said to him, “We can.” He said to them, “You will drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left hand isn’t mine to give. It belongs to those for whom my Father prepared it.” Now when the other ten disciples heard about this, they became angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them over and said, “You know that those who rule the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave— just as the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.
James' and John's mother must have not heard- or she did not want to hear- what Jesus had just said about his impending suffering, execution, and complete humiliation. I'm familiar with that kind of avoidance in myself. The truth be told, we're a mixed bag of motives and intentions akin to the good seed growing amidst thorns in the parable Jesus told in Luke 8:4 ff. Sometimes we serve for the sake of others, and even for the sheer the joy of doing it. Other times, we serve just out of duty or to feel better about ourselves. Worse, we can serve to manipulate others, so they will conform to our image of what "they" should be, such as grateful for our efforts.
The gap between the life Jesus intends for his followers to share and the way of everyone else (the Gentiles), is great. Our culture knows all about rank, authority, power, and hierarchy. So do churches. We're divided by our own proud polity and power differentials. So profound is our dislike of the noun servant (slave) that we have made it more of an adjective, leading to the oxymoronic, if not also deceptive, servant leadership. ???
But Jesus didn't talk of leadership, or leaders needing followers to feel successful. Instead, he asked his followers to regard themselves as he saw himself, as One who serves instead of finding a way to be served. We want it both ways, to call ourselves servants yet to reserve the right to be served. That way leads to a religion of resentment of God for demanding sacrifice, of others for not appreciating us, and of ourselves for sacrificing too much.
As Richard Rohr has observed: "Codependents end up being just as unhealthy as the addict, while thinking themselves as strong, generous, and loving. The martyr complex reveals this false side of love, and yes I think it even applies to some of the martyrs in the church." (Breathing Under Water, p.23)
We're endlessly inventive finding loopholes. But the opportunity is ours to hear Jesus words, and to receive them as his invitation to become free and to serve others as if to the Lord, as an act of love and worship. And mutual servants, in Jesus, become the truest of friends. (John 15:15)